As we drove to Colorado last week, we were listening to one of our playlists. The Avett Brothers song Ill with Want came up, and I felt a nudge to listen closely to the lyrics. In the song I could see a picture of a major flaw in the American dream-Consumerism. If you aren’t familiar with the song, here is a music video with the lyrics.
The first stanza illustrates the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes with the pursuit of our wants:
I am sick with wanting and it's evil and it's daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed, this time it's definitely me
I point fingers but there's no one there to blame
This is not the narrative of someone who has nothing, but of someone who has much and realized it isn’t enough. The pursuit of more has resulted in the loss of things cherished. How often have seen the lust of the eye destroy marriages, the idol of career destroy relationships and cause people to lose that which they love? The Avett brothers show a recognition that making excuses doesn’t help.
Is this free choice? To be lost in greed and pursue everything we want, while destroying our soul? The second stanza shows people can be enslaved by greed, by wanting more.
I am sick of wanting and it's evil how it's got me
And every day is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think I'm almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more
Recognition of the evil in this illusion doesn’t free the writer from slavery. Slavery to greed doesn’t sound like freedom to me. I have known many successful business executives in my life and career. I have observed how success becomes a treadmill that is hard to escape. When I ask my friends how much they need financially to feel secure, and the answer is, “Just a little more.” On our travels, we met a money manager who had a client who lost a billion dollars in the recent financial meltdown. If you can lose a billion dollars in a year, how can you ever have enough?
I fell into the trap of putting too much stock in my financial resources. We sold the business and walked away feeling financially secure. A lawsuit put it all at risk, and with a multi-million dollar judgment against me, I was facing bankruptcy. In my time of meditation, God asked me a simple question, “Do I have to take it all away from you for you to understand that is not where to put your trust?”
In the next stanza, the strength of this evil force becomes clear, bringing about behavior that comes from a place not recognized. The image is almost like possession by an evil force. Unfortunately, that evil force is the living out of an ego unchecked and unaccountable.
Something has me, oh something has me
Acting like someone I don't wanna be
Something has me, oh something has me
Acting like someone I know isn't me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed
What is the “Something” that “has me?” In my structural work, we often find strongly held concepts that are distortions of reality, paradigms held as true which in reality are not. These paradigms are mental models through which we look at the world. (For more on Working with Mental Models, see my post.) Because these paradigms work at a subconscious level, often people are not aware of where their self-defeating behaviors arise.
The song shows that the writer is onto himself about his predicament. He is speaking prophetically to himself, lamenting the situation his greed has created. The next stanza rings true with the exception of its final three words.
Temporary is my time, ain't nothing on this world that's mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to chose
It's answering what's asked of you
To give the love you find until it's gone
I find the last three words untrue, because it doesn’t matter how much love you give away, it is an inexhaustible resource. God’s grace is never ending. Too often, we tend to accumulate things and hoard them, in a mental model of scarcity. God’s world is one of abundance. Jesus explicitly promises abundance in John 10:10, when He says, “I came to give life, and give it abundantly.” So, our call is not to be a reservoir of God’s love, or to hoard all the possessions we receive through God’s grace. Instead, we are called to be a channel of His grace, letting it flow throug us and touch others with God’s love.
Perhaps the idea that love is limited and can run out drives our need to accumulate, because we see resources as scarce, and think we cannot win unless someone else loses. The idea that life is a zero-sum game keeps people trying to care for their own, without regard to the other.
So, the Avett brothers do a brilliant job of describing the core problem of our consumer society. It leaves us ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed. They express the need in the chorus, repeated through the song.
A need for something, now let me break it down again
A need for something but not more medicine
Everything that we can buy or accumulate that we think might solve the problem is just “more medicine.” It might provide relief of the symptoms for a brief moment, but the real need goes unmet. That’s because we will never find satisfaction chasing the created. True joy and abundant life come from a relationship with the Creator, not the created. At the root is the inability to place our trust, and even more our identity, in Christ. For more thoughts on identity, see my post, Does your Identity Limit Spiritual Growth?